Far East Cafe, San Francisco, California

In San Francisco there are two Chinese restaurants that claim to be the oldest in the city and both were established in the same year: 1920. There’s the Hang Ah Tearoom, which also claims to be the first dim sum restaurant in the U.S. The food is reported to be good, but the place has zero atmosphere. The other is the Far East Cafe in the heart of Chinatown. In contrast its dining room is spectacular and apparently much of it is original.

 

Far East Cafe

Le Continental couldn’t find any detailed info about the Far East Cafe online. All we know is that it opened in 1920 with its ornate lamps, paintings and other decor coming from China.

 

Far East Cafe

The Bar

 

The Far East Cafe serves traditional Cantonese style Chinese and Chinese-American food, with a sprinkling of Szechuan dishes on the menu as well. They specialize in seafood, so that’s what you should order.

 

Far East Cafe

A unique feature are the private wood dining compartments on one side of the dining room (that matches the wood paneling on the opposite side), which the restaurant says are the last in any Chinese restaurant in the city. Sam’s Grill and Tadich Grill (both in San Francisco) also still have similar private dining compartments. Reservations are REQUIRED to sit in a private compartment (walk-ins welcome for the main dining room).

 

Far East Cafe

The restaurant was freshly painted since the last time I visited but the colors are pleasing, not garish like in so many Chinese restaurants. And check out those beautiful murals and intricate “palace” lamps! I also love the vintage linoleum floor.

 

Far East Cafe

The service was very attentive on my recent visit. The waiters wear black vests with white shirts, black slacks, and red ties.

 

Far East Cafe

 

Far East Cafe
631 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 982-3245
Open daily 11:30am-10pm

What is the best steakhouse in the U.S.?

What is the best steakhouse in the U.S.? Le Continental’s pick is Bern’s in Tampa. I’ve only been twice (ten years apart) but one visit was enough to proclaim it THE BEST. Bern’s motto is “We do things differently here.”, so it’s more than a restaurant meal, rather they offer “A unique culinary experience.”.

 

Bern Laxer - image by Bern's Steak House via Tampa Bay Business journal

Bern Laxer – image by Bern’s Steak House via Tampa Bay Business journal

 

Bernard Laxer was born in New York City in 1923, served in WWII, and graduated from NYU with a degree in advertising. He married and moved to Florida with his wife Gertrude in 1951. After saving some cash from various jobs, they bought a juice bar in Tampa in 1953. Renamed Bern and Gert’s Little Midway, it was a successful breakfast and lunch counter. Quality was their emphasis from the beginning as they served fresh baked bread, fresh-squeezed juice, and 37 kinds of jam, jellies and preserves. In 1956 Bern and Gert bought a place called Beer Haven on Howard Ave right where Bern’s Bordeaux Room is today. To save money on the sign they renamed it Bern’s (dropping some of the letters from the Beer Haven sign and adding the apostrophe and the ‘s’). At first it was a hamburger restaurant with red checked tablecloths and Chianti bottle candle holders. Bern was the host, greeting customers, and Gert waited tables.

 

image by patch.com

Bern’s today (the building used to be brick but it was covered with stucco about a few years ago) – image by patch.com

 

Bern’s soon became a steak house and expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually taking over the entire shopping center that was next door. Through hard work, clever advertising, and quality of food and service it became a dining destination. One local ad read  ”Steak Dinner, $66,000. Includes African safari and a good luck charm. Steak dinner alone: $2.50.”.

Bern bought a local liquor store to more easily supply his restaurant with liquor and wine. He became a lover of fine wines. Much of their profit went into the restaurant’s expansions, fine art he decorated the dining rooms with, and his wine collection, which grew to the largest in the world, around 500,000 bottles of around 6,800 selections. About 100,000 bottles are stored in the restaurant’s wine cellar today, with the other 400,000  kept in warehouses around Tampa. In 1974 the wine list was 1,236 pages long. By 1995 it was a whopping 2,500 pages of wine listings, maps of wine regions, interviews with wine connoisseurs, and reference information. Today you receive an abridged wine list at your table, however you can ask for the 179-page wine list, which is updated quarterly. Perhaps you may want a 1901 Château Mouton-Rothschild, a Château Latour from 1920, or a Château Lafite-Rothschild from 1881. They have all of these vintages available.

In 1993 Bern’s son Dave took over operation of Bern’s after Bern Laxer sustained injuries in a serious car accident, and he runs it today. Bern Laxer passed away in 2002.

 

Bern’s Dining Rooms

 

Lobby of Bern's today - image by Bren Hererra

Lobby of Bern’s today – image by Bren Hererra

 

Bern’s eight dining rooms and stunning lobby with its grand staircase to the restrooms (above photo)  were decorated in the 1960’s and 70s in red flocked wallpaper, red carpet, mirrors and classical art in gold frames, antique furniture, and sculpture, much of it personally collected by Bern Laxer. Many writers call this a “bordello” style, or perhaps rococo revival. The dining rooms were redecorated one-at-a-time from 1999 into the early 2000s, some a little (new carpet), some a lot (the Andre Tchelischeff room, named for a California winemaker, was redone in mahogany paneling with enlarged photos of Bern and Tchelischeff). The bar was completely redone at the time and TVs were removed from the dessert room (hooray!). In the past couple of years some of the dining rooms were redone again, but not drastically. The acoustic tiled ceilings were replaced with more attractive coffered ceilings. For example, here is the Florentine Room (sometimes also called the Cameo Room) before the recent remodel:

 

Florentine room before recent remodel - image by PontoOrlando.com

Florentine room before recent remodel – image by PontoOrlando.com

 

And here is the Florentine Room as it looks now (which I dined in on my recent visit). Still classy, still old-fashioned, but a bit more elegant with nicer chairs, a chandelier and spot lights, and a new ceiling.

 

Florentine room - image by Dining Out on an Expense Account

Florentine room now – image by Dining Out on an Expense Account

 

Before my last visit I found it hard to find good information online about Bern’s dining rooms and what they are called, so here I present my Le Continental readers with a showing of all of Bern’s dining rooms for your convenience, so when you make your reservation you can choose the room you want to dine in. We start at the bar.

 

Bar & lounge - image by Times Publishing Inc.

Bar & lounge – image by Times Publishing Inc.

 

The Bordeaux Room, where Bern's started in 1956 - Photo by Lara Cerri via Visit Florida Flickr page

Bordeaux Room, where Bern’s started in 1956 – Photo by Lara Cerri via Visit Florida Flickr page

 

Bronze Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Bronze Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Tchelistcheff Room - image by The Daily Meal

Tchelistcheff Room – image by The Daily Meal

 

Burgundy Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Burgundy Room, with a detailed map of the wine region – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Rhone room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Rhone room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Rhone room photo mural - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Rhone room photo mural – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Not shown are the Champagne and Port rooms, which I believe are used for private gatherings. Counting the Florentine Room shown above, that’s eight dining rooms, not counting the extra-special room which is actually the second floor of the building!

 

Harry Waugh Dessert Room - image by thecoolist.com

Harry Waugh Dessert Room – image by thecoolist.com

 

In 1985 the Harry Waugh Dessert Room was added, which is on the second floor (a friend of Bern’s, Harry Waugh, an Englishman, was director of Chateau Latour in France). It consists of a labyrinth of 48 semi-private dining booths made from redwood wine vats and glass (it’s hard to describe and must be experienced when you visit Bern’s).

Note: Bern’s dining rooms, lobby, and bar are quite dark (as they should be) inside, darker than is shown in these photos. There are NO WINDOWS in the entire restaurant! It doesn’t necessarily make for good pictures, as you can see in my photo below, but that’s OK. It gives you an idea of the atmosphere at Bern’s.

 

lobby - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

lobby – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

The Food

Where to begin? Let’s get to the meat of the matter! The steak menu:

  • filet mignon
  • chateaubriand
  • “special” chateaubriand, loin-aged 7 weeks
  • strip sirloin (New York), USDA Prime, aged 5-8 weeks
  • Delmonico (ribeye), USDA Prime, aged 5-8 weeks
  • porterhouse, USDA Prime, aged 5-8 weeks
  • t-bone, USDA Prime, aged 5-8 weeks

Each steak is hand-cut, trimmed, and weighed to order, offered in multiple sizes by weight. The menu shows how many people each sized steak can feed, and how thick it is, depending on how it’s cooked (rare to med. rare steaks are served thicker than steaks cooked more well done). All steaks are broiled over lump hardwood charcoal. The waiter was very helpful in giving suggestions as the menu can be a lot to study. For example, for two people one large thick steak is usually better than ordering two separate steaks (if you want the same steak done the same way). Anything you wish Bern’s will accommodate you.

Bern’s trims off most of the fat (and any gristle) so the steak may not look like the same cut in other steakhouses. They buy 3 to 4 pounds of beef for each 1 pound of steak. All you get is the best part. As you can see in my photo below my Delmonico (ribeye) had the fat removed so it was served as one large price and one smaller piece.

 

Delmonico, rare - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Delmonico, rare – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

A bit about Bern’s side dishes. In the 1970s Bern Laxer purchased an eight-acre farm so he could grow his own vegetables for the restaurant, organically. Today Bern’s still grows many of its vegetables on its farm and other local farms. The side dishes are all prepared to order and are delicious.

 

tableside Caesar salad - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

table-side Caesar salad preparation – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Bern’s menu is humongous. There is a large caviar selection, many appetizers to choose from, and entrees of beef, pork, lamb, and seafood, which is flown in fresh daily. There is a long menu of specials every night which change monthly based on what is in season and available called the Kitchen Within a Kitchen. There is a cheese menu featuring dozens of cheeses from around the world, some aged at Bern’s in their Cheese Cave.

 

Dessert Room table - photo by Dean Curtis, 2006

Dessert Room table – photo by Dean Curtis, 2006

 

Make sure you allow several hours for the full Bern’s experience: a cocktail in the bar, a leisurely dinner (you never feel rushed at Bern’s), dessert and an after-dinner drink in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, and even a tour of the wine cellar and kitchen if you so desire. My advice is to make a dinner reservation for no later than 7pm so you can have plenty of time (arriving an hour or so earlier so you can visit the bar). The closing hours vary by the night of the week but you should plan to be finished by 10 or 11 (later on Friday or Saturday).

 

dessert room music system - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

dessert room music system – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Each booth in the dessert room has a sound system with choices of soft music and a phone so you can request a song played by the live piano player! About 50 desserts are offered on the menu. A highlight was the macadamia nut ice cream sundae. I ordered the Baked Alaska, served flambéed table-side.

 

Baked Alaska - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Baked Alaska – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

The dessert room drinks menu has over 1,000 drinks, wines, liquors, and cordials. There are many vintage ports (dating back to 1957) and madeiras (from as far back as 1792), many at affordable prices.

 

The Jab, very satisfied (but full) after dining at Bern's, 2006

At Bern’s they treat you like a king! The Jab, very satisfied (but full) after dining at Bern’s, 2006

 

A final word on the service: impeccable! Every waiter is trained for a full year throughout the restaurant and even on the farm, then for another 8 to 12 weeks in the dining rooms.

If you love steaks, classic steakhouses, and fine dining you need to make a pilgrimage to Bern’s. It’s worth the trip from anywhere in the U.S. Save your money, go all out with the full Bern’s experience: caviar (if you desire), a great wine, an aged steak, perhaps with a lobster tail, and some dessert with a glass of vintage port. Jackets and ties are encouraged (but not required) at Bern’s. Get dressed up and do it right!

 

Bern’s Steak House
1208 S Howard Ave, Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 251-2421
Open Sun-Thu 5:00pm-10:00pm, Fri-Sat 5:00pm-11:00pm

 

 

The American, Kansas City, Missouri

On a recent visit to Kansas City (my first) we had cocktails in the gorgeous American Restaurant in Crown Center, designed by Warren Platner in 1974. We enjoyed the view, the design, the drinks, and the wonderful singer and pianist in the lounge, then moved on to have steak dinner in the Plaza III Steakhouse. There just wasn’t enough time in a long weekend to dine at every classic restaurant. Unfortunately, Le Continental has just learned that The American, Kansas City’s only classic fine dining restaurant, will be closing at the end of the year. Plans are to use it for “pop-ups” and special events in 2017, but there is no word on if it will stay the same or be remodeled.

 

The American Restaurant

dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Crown Center, a mixed-use redevelopment project just south of downtown, was the vision of Joyce C. Hall, Hallmark’s founder. Headquarted in Kansas City, Hallmark’s main office looked out on a little used area of land with old warehouses and parking lots. On the site Mr. Hall built a complex with office space, a shopping center, condos, two hotels (a Westin and a Sheraton), and large fountain (in the city of fountains), and an office building. In 1974 a restaurant was opened on the top floor of the office building that would be the world-class midwest dining destination south of Chicago. Joe Baum, known for the NYC restaurants Tavern on the Green, The Rainbow Room, and the Four Seasons (which just closed this month), was a consultant on the project. James Beard, “The Dean of American Cookery”, was hired to conceptualize and create the modern American menu. And Warren Platner, who had designed modern wire furniture for Knoll and a restaurant for Eero Saarinen’s 1965 CBS building, was hired to design the interiors (he would later design the Windows on the World).

 

image by Dwell.com

image by Dwell.com

 

Platner created a cathedral-like space with high ceilings decorated with fan-shaped bent wood light sculptures facing a view of the city through huge glass windows that could be shaded with wooden shutters. The furniture and carpet were done in fuschia with brass lamp fixtures for lighting and brass railings along the staircases from the foyer and bar into the lower-level dining room.

 

image by designobserver.com

image by designobserver.com

 

Today the restaurant is mostly the same except the brass light fixtures, banquettes, and fuschia color scheme are gone. It’s still a spectacular space. I was there in daylight. I imagine it’s even more striking at night.

 

The American Restaurant

the bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Over the years several locally famous chefs helmed the kitchen at the American including James Beard award-winning chefs Debbie Gold, Michael Smith, and Celina Tio. The menu these days, under executive chef Michael Corvino since 2013, has been updated (he is leaving the restaurant in August). They recently dropped table-side prepared dishes from the menu, which were still offered in 2010 (according to a blog post I read). The menu  consists of a prix-fixe three-course menu at $65, with a tasting menu at $110.

If you can possibly make it to Kansas City, you should visit the American before the end of the year.

 

The American
Crown Center, 200 E 25th St #400, Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 545-8001
Open Wed-Thu 5:30pm – 10:00pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm – 11:00pm, live music starts at 6:30 on Fridays and Saturdays

 

 

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber, Clearwater, Florida

One of the great pleasures in life for me is discovering a restaurant that is well-preserved mid-century modern in design that also has terrific food. Before I travel somewhere I always pull out my vintage copies of Duncan Hines’ Adventures in Good Eating (I have one from the 1940s and one from 1962) and the AAA Tour Book (I have copies from 1953 and a 1959-60) and look in the areas where I’m going for restaurants that still exist (via an online search). I found Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber this way. From the 1962 Adventures in Good Eating:

Heilman’s Beachcomber…”Back-to-the-farm” fried chicken dinners served family style, seafood delicacies and N.Y. cut sirloin steaks. L., $1-$3. D., $2.25-$3.

The next thing I usually do is do an image search and check out pictures of the place on Yelp and Tripadvisor to see if it’s been remodeled. In most cases they are. In the case of the Beachcomber it looked remodeled on the outside but there weren’t good photos of the inside so my hopes weren’t that high, though I still put it on the top of my to-dine-at list. I’m glad I did!

 

Heilman's Ohio

Heilman’s, Lorain, Ohio – image by http://danielebrady.blogspot.com

 

In 1920 Ross Heilman and his brother Alton opened a small grill on Broadway in Lorain, Ohio. They expanded into a larger building in 1936 and renamed it Heilman’s Marine Dining Room and Grill, decorating it in a lightly nautical theme.

 

Marine Dining Room, Lorain, Ohio - image by http://danielebrady.blogspot.com

Marine Dining Room, Lorain, Ohio – image by http://danielebrady.blogspot.com

 

Ross Heilman’s son Bob opened Heilman’s Beachcomber in 1948 in Clearwater Beach, Florida.

 

Original Heilman's Beachcomber, Clearwater, Florida - image by William Bird on Flickr

Original Heilman’s Beachcomber, Clearwater, Florida – image by William Bird on Flickr

 

Ross’ other son Hubert opened a Heilman’s restaurant in Fort Lauderdale in 1958.

 

Heilman's Fort Lauderdale, Florida - image by SwellMap on Flickr

Heilman’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida – image by SwellMap on Flickr

 

In 1959 the Beachcomber was badly damaged by fire so it was rebuilt. The new Heilman’s Beachcomber had two dining rooms, The Seascape Room and The Gallery, and the  Jester Bar. I’m not sure but I’m going to guess that the Seascape Room is now the front dining room where you enter that has large windows on two walls while the Gallery Room is the split-level dining room and bar to the right as you enter (part of it can be seen in the vintage postcard view below).

 

early postcard of Heilman's Beachcomber's Gallery Room - image by William Bird on Flickr

early postcard of Heilman’s Beachcomber’ – image by William Bird on Flickr

 

In 1961 a fourth Heilman family restaurant opened: Heilman’s Ranch House on West Erie in Lorain, Ohio, not far from Heilman’s Marine Dining Room. It was decorated with pine walls, cattle hides, longhorn skulls and lariats, and was open 24-hours serving “ranchburgers” and other American fare. In 1964 the Beachcomber expanded by adding the “Room For One More Room”. In 1968 the original Heilman’s closed, leaving the Fort Lauderdale Heilman’s (closing year unknown), the Ranch House (closed, 1974), and the lone survivor to date: Heilman’s Beachcomber. Bob Heilman passed away in 2007.

 

later postcard of Heilman's Fort Lauderdale - image by William Bird on Flickr

later postcard of Heilman’s Fort Lauderdale – image by William Bird on Flickr

 

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber today

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

entrance - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

entrance – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

As I stated above, the Seascape Room was somewhat remodeled recently with some sailboat wall sculptures (but the chandelier is still there) along with the outside of the building (I haven’t found any pics of the outside of the 1959 Beachcomber before the remodel).

 

early postcard of Seascape Room

early postcard of Seascape Room

 

recent photo of Seascape Room via Tripadvisor

recent photo of Seascape Room via Tripadvisor

 

As you enter the second dining room (which I think is the Gallery Room) you first notice that it is spilt-level, with tables on the first level and booths and tables on the second level. At the front of the room is a wonderful mural, white banquettes, and a wood beam ceiling, all of which can be seen in the vintage postcard above (now with fabric between the beams).

 

mural - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

mural – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

On closer inspection you can see that the mural, portraying Caribbean island activities such as preparing food, fishing, and playing music, is actually in mixed media (such as, the boat section is really made of wood). And then you spy the Beachcomber character in the mural, who wears a striped shirt, a white linen suit with the pants rolled up, and a white Captain’s hat (he also appears on the menus, old matchbooks, and there is a statue of him in one corner of the Gallery Room).

 

detail of mural - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

detail of mural – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

One of the fine folks at Tiki Central traced the origin of this beachcomber character to a 1940s painting by Albert Dorne (there are also some dandy matchbooks and other ephemera to view).

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

beachcomber statue in Gallery Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

I like the Beachcomber’s use of classic house plants, a nice touch that adds to the vintage feel (more restaurants should start using house plants again).

 

Second level of Gallery Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Second level of Gallery Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

copper wall sculpture in Gallery Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

copper wall sculpture in Gallery Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

There is live piano music nightly in the Gallery Room next to the bar. I enjoyed the piano player’s mix of old standards and classic rock ‘n roll songs. Live music is a tradition at the Beachcomber: in the 1960s they featured Ruth Crane on the Hammond organ. Speaking of the bar, the back wall of the bar is all rocks and on the right side of the bar is a gorgeous long stained glass mural of abstract bottles, which is signed and dated ‘1959’.

 

stained glass in bar - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

stained glass in bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

detail of stained glass - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

detail of stained glass with rock wall behind – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016 (open to enlarge)

 

 

 

Behind the Gallery Room is another small dining room with a copper fireplace, which I think is the Room For One More Room.

 

 

 

Room For One More Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Room For One More Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

The Menu consists mainly of seafood, several cuts of beef, and their famous fried chicken. They have some classic specialties such as vichyssoise, served in a bowl on a bed of crushed ice, fried frogs legs, clams Casino, oysters Florentine, escargot, chicken livers, and their version of the Hot Brown, an open-faced sandwich of roast turkey on toast with Mornay sauce baked until it’s browned and topped with bacon, tomato, olives, and asparagus (it originated in Lousiville, Kentucky, at the Brown Hotel in 1926 but the Beachcomber says they’ve made it this way since 1948). Dinners are served with a chilled relish tray of house made relishes & spreads with crackers, salad (or soup with the fried chicken dinner), vegetable, and a basket of their homemade banana bread, muffins, and rolls.

 

relish tray of (clockwise from LL) farmers cheese, apple butter, beet horseradish, and corn relish - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

relish tray of (clockwise from LL) farmers cheese, apple butter, beet horseradish, and corn relish – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

The service was outstanding. Thank goodness that Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber survives and thrives. I can’t wait to return.

 

Bob Heilman, 1921-2007

Bob Heilman, 1921-2007

 

 

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber
447 Mandalay Ave, Clearwater Beach, FL 33767
(727) 442-4144
Open Mon-Thu 11:30am-10:30pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-11:00pm, Sun 11:30am-10:00pm

 

Columbia, Tampa, Florida

Cuban food is SOOOO GOOD in Florida! And cheap! In Tampa, where the Cuban sandwich as we know it (aka the Cubano) was invented, there are plenty of options to choose from for Cuban food. Brocato’s has been making great sandwiches since 1948, and their Cuban is one of the best in the Tampa Bay area. I had a great Cuban media noche sandwich (midnight sandwich, a Cubano on egg bread) in downtown St. Petersburg at the award-winning Bodega. And if you are on a layover and short on time there are two casual restaurants not far from the airport which I was able to try on a recent visit and recommend highly for Cuban food: Arco-Iris and La Teresita (even if you are not in a hurry they are both well worth seeking out). But for the best atmosphere with your Cuban (and Spanish) food Columbia is the place!

 

sign

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Established in Ybor City in 1905, Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida (they also claim to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, taking up an entire city block!). Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. opened the bar and café to serve the Cuban and Spanish cigar workers in the neighborhood (at its manufacturing peak in 1929 Ybor City’s cigar factories produced 500 million cigars!).

 

Columbia entrance - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Columbia entrance – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Original bar and cafe - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Original 1905 bar and café – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

In 1930 Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. passed away and his son Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. took over running Columbia. In 1935 the Don Quixote Room was added, which was the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. It has Moorish doorways, a 19th-century chandelier, and a balcony with additional seating.

 

doorway into Don Quixote Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

doorway into Don Quixote Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

chandelier in the Don Quixote Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

chandelier in the Don Quixote Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

In 1937 Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. added the Patio Room, an Andalusia style dining area.

 

patio room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

patio room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Casimiro and his wife Carmen had a daughter, Adele, a Julliard-trained concert pianist, who married Cesar Gonzmart, a concert violinist, in 1946. Cesar is hired to help run the restaurant. He expands further, adding the Siboney Room, a 300-seat showroom with top Latin entertainers, to help attract customers to the declining neighborhood.

 

The Red Room, which I believe dates back to the 1950s - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

The Red Room, which I believe dates back to the 1950s – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

The Red Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

The Red Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

In 1959 the Columbia Restaurant opened in Sarasota, which is now Sarasota’s oldest restaurant. In 1962 Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. passed away. Cesar and Adela Gonzmart run the restaurant until 1970, when their sons Richard and Casey join them in operations. In the 1980s locations are added in St. Augustine and Clearwater Beach at Sand Key and in 1997 a fifth location is opened in Celebration, Florida. Columbia cafes have also opened recently at the Tampa History Center and the Tampa Airport. In 1992 Cesar passed away and his sons Richard and Casey, the 4th generation, run the restaurant today with many family members also in the restaurant’s employ. In 2004 much of the restaurant was renovated, with new dining rooms and a new kitchen added, but the older dining rooms thankfully remain.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

The menu, which has a beautiful cover portraying Columbus’ voyage, is loaded with Spanish and Cuban dishes. There are too many to list, but they are famous for their “1905 Salad”, a basic chef salad made into something special by their signature garlic dressing prepared tableside. The salad was tempting, but I opted for a starter of a deviled crab croquette (croqueta de alba) because I was excited to try it. A Tampa specialty since the Great Depression, it is blue crab meat with garlic and paprika rolled into an elongated ball, coated in bread crumbs and fried. The weather outside was hot so I ordered a large bowl of gazpacho, a chilled tomato-based Spanish soup served with fresh chopped vegetables and croutons, which are added by the server tableside (I appreciated the use of tableside flourishes by the classic waiters in dinner jackets and bow ties). Very delicious and refreshing! My friend loved his Salteado, a stir-fry type dish credited to Chinese immigrants in Cuba made with olive oil, garlic, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, potatoes, chorizo, red wine, and your choice of chicken beef or shrimp (served with yellow rice). His wife enjoyed the roast pork, which is marinated in citrus juice and roasted, then sliced and cooked some more in gravy until very tender. Their Cuban sandwich is made with Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery, in Ybor City since 1915! Cuban bread is also served warm with every meal. For dessert their flan (from a 1933 family recipe) and their white chocolate bread pudding are legendary.

 

sangria pitchers - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

sangria pitchers – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

They serve mojitos and sangria, by the pitcher or glass, as well as cocktails. And they have a giant wine list of 234 pages, featuring many fine Spanish and California wines.

 

some of the press on Columbia restaurant is displayed in the original cafe dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

some of the press about Columbia restaurant is displayed in the original café dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Take your time and explore this enormous restaurant complex. There are historical photos and documents in the halls, and multiple dining rooms, some for private functions. Even the dining rooms added in 2004 are beautiful.

 

new dining room added in 2004 - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

new dining room added in 2004 – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

And there is magnificent tile work on the outside of the building.

 

one of the tile murals on the building's facade - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

one of the tile murals on the building’s façade – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

The Columbia restaurant is a true gem in Florida that is a must-visit dining experience!

 

Columbia
2117 E 7th Ave, Tampa, FL 33605
(813) 248-4961
Open Mon-Thu 11:00am-10:00pm, Fri-Sat 11:00am-11:00pm, Sun 10:30am-9:00pm